The Toys are Back in Town for Pixar's Latest

"Zurg, you killed my mother!" screams an animated Buzz Lightyear as he battles the evil emperor on top of a descending elevator shaft. And after ages of waiting for Zurg to speak and declare his intentions to rule supreme over the universe, Buzz holds his breath. "Noooo," answers Zurg in his guttural robonics, "I am your father." Cut to: Zurg and Buzz Lightyear playing with whiffleballs on the side of a highway. And so the wonderful world of Pixar rolls merrily along...

Toy Story 2 is no ordinary sequel. It's an absolute miracle--the type of movie where you shake your head and ask, "How did they do that?" But even more, you don't want to know the answer. Let the wizards at Pixar work their magic. We'll just enjoy the product. (And a whole lot of us seem to be enjoying the product. The movie raked in an earth-shattering $80.8 million in its first week.)

Pixar--an independent studio that uses Disney as a distributor--first made a splash back in 1995 with the original Toy Story, the highest grossing movie of that year and the spark that kindled the computer animation glut. (You won't be seeing any more paint/cel animated films for a long time to come....) But Toy Story was special not because it had kids forking over $8 to see the movie a dozen times, but because it brought the adults back to animation. Not since Aladdin or the Lion King had we had indulged in a cartoon that purposely surfed right over the kiddie's heads, providing pretty eye candy for tots and self-referential fun for the big ones. While Disney went back to its melodramatic basics for its feature-length animation of the '90s, Pixar adopted a distinctly modern--practically postmodern--sensibility. Each scene in Toy Story and the even better A Bug's Life (1998) has epic ambition: to touch the heart, engage your brain, tickle the funny bone. Did we get any of that in Pocahontas? Or the god-awful Prince of Egypt? Pooh. Toy Story 2 proves that Pixar is the only real force in animation nowadays. This movie is smarter, cooler.

Disney normally doesn't do animated sequels (They have no problems with live-action ones, though; a recent preview already advertises 102 Dalmatians, which opens next Thanksgiving. What an abomination.) But Toy Story almost begged a sequel because its characters created an apoplectic microcosm whose surface could barely be scratched in a mere 90 minutes. Besides Woody and Buzz Lightyear, our animated Don Quixote and Pancho Sanza (the fun is figuring out who exactly is more deluded), you have the returning Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (now officially married), Slinky Dog, the incontinent Hamm, the still neurotic Rex and the ever-prone-to-PDA Bo Peep. The sequel adds a few new ones--most notably, Barbie (Mattel realized they lost a major marketing chance when they refused to let Pixar use their infamously-proportioned doll in the first film). Also in the fray are Wayne Knight's villainous Al McWhiggen, a proprieter of a nearby toy store who dreams of selling Woody to a Japanese museum (why Japanese? Exhibit A of Pixar subversiveness); Jesse and Stinky Pete, the missing figures in "Woody's Roundup"; and, of course, Zurg, the Darth Vader of the cartoon world. It's mass chaos most of the time, but that's the fun of the Toy Story universe. Blink one eye and--ack! You have to watch it again.

The original Toy Story had two problems. First and foremost, the animation, though incredibly detailed, still seemed--well, too shiny. Sure, the toys looked great, but the humans had plasticky visages and seemed cut and pasted from a B-grade video game. The sequel gets it right. Director John Lasseter (the hottest man in Showbiz right now) and his crew at Pixar studied countless pictures of human skin in order to perfectly recreate it--we see Al McWhiggen's pores, his nose hairs, his mild case of adult acne. In fact, Lasseter is so confident in his company's animation capabilities that he inserts "show-off scenes" to prove it; the opening Buzz Lightyear versus Zurg video game capture whirls through luminescent minefields, perilous tracking shots, and stunning detail. Unlike 99 percent of sequels, this one works harder than the original.


But I wonder whether Pixar will ever split from Disney. God knows they'll have the money after Toy Story 2 finishes its run (the gross could potentially top out at $300 million). If they do go independent, expect an epic showdown. Unlike every other major studio that has recently built an in-house animation studio, Pixar has the goods to compete with the Mouseketeers. But such animated politics need not concern us. Like I said, we don't want to know why. We don't want to know how. We just want our cartoon.

It seems that every studio's major Oscar contender runs at 160 minutes. Two hours and 40 minutes to tell a story? I have no doubt that Toy Story 2 tells a bigger, faster, cooler one in 90.

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